Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Music of Strangers (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Music is an almost primal universal language and an exchange of communication. The documentary "The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble" by Morgan Neville is a colorful and rolling testament to this universality. Right from the start of this film, a variety of sounds hit you in great undulations: here is a tapestry made from the pulses of China, Spain, America and The Middle East.

Around 1990, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma was at a kind of standstill. Making music was becoming rote. He questioned the quest for originality, his place as a musician and yearned to do something spontaneous.  On an appearance with interviewer Charlie Rose, he said he was going to seek out the  African Bushman. He went to the Kalahari Desert and learned of their trance ritual.

It was a step towards the combinations of possibility that Ma sought. Then in 1998, an idea hit him. Why not try a collaboration? This led to the creation of a group of sonic explorers known as The Silk Road Ensemble, who use their home instruments to make music and fuse with one another to create a fluid tapestry. Depicted in the film are Yo-Yo Ma, Wu Man with a pipa -- a lute instrument, Kayan Kalhor on his kamancheh -- a type of fiddle with a long neck, Cristina Patos on her Galician bagpipes, and Kinan Azmeh on the clarinet, to name just a few members.

Many musicians have endured years of tragedy and violent revolution resulting in displacement or the loss of family members due to distance or murder. Still each person makes music and becomes inseparable from the other.

The film does a fine job of illustrating the group's journey, its wishes and its fears. Every artist has a story. Patos has green hair like The Joker and wants new fans to see bagpipes with the colors of Rock & Roll. Kalhor lost his family and always felt he had to look over his shoulder, be it in America or Iran, and Azmeh worries about war-worn Syria. No less heartfelt is the plight of Yo-Yo Ma himself, who is in an existential crisis. Will his next composition be his last, and how lasting will his output be in the ears of others.
This documentary makes a vibrant kaleidoscope of imagery that matches an exotic soundtrack. Most striking is the interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Once a cathedral, a mosque and twice burned to the ground, it is now a museum where half-erased frescoes stare out in Catholic defiance. Similarly, the ensemble of musicians are defiant in the face of violence and xenophobia that looms in the distance like a dense but half formed cloud. The musicians are uncertain of any future projects, yet they continue their rhythmic and bracing cultural exchanges, adapting along the way.

Though this film begs for more actual music, the musical passages that are featured will have you jumping from your seat. "The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble" delivers a holistic meditation on the process of music making and the connection between crushing obstacles and  expression.

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